Building renovation — the old and the new

As our town and city centres adapt to the twin realities of the climate emergency and the post-pandemic era, the sustainable regeneration of historic and listed buildings has never been more central to urban renewal and revival.

Historic buildings connect our communities and our environment with our past, providing a tangible sense of place. Increasingly, their value as cornerstones of urban regeneration projects is being recognised, bestowing their distinctive identity and heritage to anchor progressive schemes that shape the future without losing sight of the past.

There are around 400,000 listed building entries in England. In London alone, 16,000 Grade II and, in the City of London, more than 600 listed buildings and other structures. Across the UK, our rich heritage of historic buildings is an intrinsic part of the fabric of our built urban environment. The upkeep, preservation and re-imagination of listed buildings as mainstays of regeneration projects is critically important.

From an environmental perspective, the re-purposing of such structures makes undeniable sense. Even new-builds with the most impeccable ecological credentials come at a heavy environmental cost through the construction phase, whereas the sensitive restoration and embodied energy of existing buildings minimises such impacts whilst preserving important cultural assets. The inspirational work of pioneering companies like Urban Splash demonstrates the value of preserving and restoring what we already have, whilst treading lightly from an environmental perspective — from individual buildings to entire neighbourhoods.

On the topic of regeneration and the gentrification of areas by way of new, more sustainable buildings, Norman Foster comments in an interview to Deezen* “there are a lot of dangerous myths” about sustainability. Foster goes on to say that the studio, which is the UK’s largest architectural practice, aims to create buildings that achieve sustainability without detriment to people’s wellbeing. “Buildings which are good for the planet are going to be closer to nature. They’re going to be buildings which are not sealed boxes recirculating refrigerated air, which is not the healthiest.”

“There are a lot of dangerous myths about materials too” he adds, commenting that. “…it’s not about the material, it’s about how you use that material.” Foster argues that concrete can have many benefits — citing the Apple campus in California (image below) as an exemplary concrete building because its design reduces the use of additional materials for fit-outs.



What lies beneath… the critical importance of building renovation

Similarly, with corporate and government budgets under greater pressure than ever before, the regeneration and renovation of old and listed buildings makes sound financial sense. Reimagining the decaying, disused and dilapidated heartlands of our towns and cities has a transformational effect, but at a lower economic cost than large scale new-builds. Over the longer term, such investment in heritage and cultural assets repays directly to local communities and the social fabric of the surrounding areas, re-invigorating urban centres and stimulating new economic activity and growth.

The value of upkeeping your façade goes far beyond the very obvious aesthetic improvements it entails. By maintaining these essential aspects of the fabric of a building of any age, significant structural benefits and thermal efficiencies come into the equation. Just as importantly, the choice of contractor can have a profound impact, not only on the efficiency and quality of works but also the time they take — a major consideration for the operators of many commercial premises.

The greenest building is the one that already exists.
Carl Elefante, former President of the American Institute of Architects


Taking London as an example, most of the city’s iconic architecture is hundreds of years old. From a conservation perspective, redecoration and restoration are is the most sustainable and carbon-efficient approaches for heritage buildings of this age.

Professor John Edwards, MA, DipBldgCons, CEnv, FCIOB, FRICS, IHBC, an internationally renowned authority on building conservation, Chartered Environmentalist, comments: “Retaining and looking after historic buildings properly is the most sustainable and carbon-efficient approach — those with a view that we have to replace existing older timber windows with new windows in order to make the windows more energy efficient are misguided.”

It’s a view supported by research undertaken by Glasgow Caledonian University for Historic Environment Scotland, which established an energy efficiency improvement of 15% — just by repairing existing windows. Similarly BS7913, the British Standard for historic buildings identifies reductions in energy efficiency by over 30% due to damp building fabric in the case of masonry enclosing walls.

As businesses across all sectors strive to simultaneously increase their sustainability and reduce their carbon footprints, it is clear that rigorous, regular maintenance of façades and windows is essential.



Essential upkeep of windows and façades

The sensitive upkeep of older wooden windows is a fundamental component of any successful maintenance regime. If allowed to deteriorate unchecked, damaged or missing caulking (as well as cracks, rot, and mildew) can cause untold harm. Unaddressed, these conditions ultimately lead to the need for replacement — costly at the best of times and, in the case of heritage buildings, disastrous from a conservation perspective.

It’s a similar story for the exterior coatings on many historic buildings, such as lime render and stucco. Once a coating’s integrity is compromised by the combined effects of the elements and pollution, damp can penetrate the fabric of the building. Worse still, the damage can be compounded if the correct, breathable paints, such as limewash, are not used. It’s one thing to identify structural threats, but quite another to prescribe the best treatments. Working with a contractor who is not only suitably qualified but also vastly experienced, is therefore of immeasurable value.

On older buildings, another key consideration is lead. A common constituent of exterior paints used on homes, schools, and offices until as late as the 1960s, lead was not fully removed from all commonly used paint until the early 1980s. As a result, the Control of Lead at Work (CLAW) Regulations 2002 is a vitally important aspect of any façade maintenance and redecoration works. Whilst even mild levels of lead dust or fumes can cause symptoms such as headaches, anaemia, and stomach pains, excessive exposure can give rise to kidney, nerve, and brain damage and even possibly cancer. As a responsible contractor, De Group Contracting adhere to all CLAW 2002 guidance to protect the wellbeing of their staff and any other individuals in the vicinity of works.

Far more than just preserving the outward appearance of premises, regular redecoration by experienced, specialist contractors helps safeguard their structural, architectural and thermal integrity — today, tomorrow and long into the future.

Old and new… just as urban regeneration is fundamental to breathing new life into old and listed buildings and preserving valuable heritage assets, a sustainable approach to achieving this objective is non-negotiable. By combining traditional craftsmanship and ancient skills with cutting edge innovation, we can successfully chart a course to cities of the future that celebrate the architectural glories of our past.
Kelly Hynds FCIOB, Construction Director